*For the protection of my family members and friends, I have changed their names.*
I am an atheist.
In the simplest terms this means that I don’t believe in God.
However, it wasn’t always this way.
It was the early winter of 1988. Christmas was approaching fast and although I have no way of remembering that year, I imagine that Pittsburgh’s Magee Women’s Hospital was most likely decked out in holiday decorations. It was 16th December at 14 minutes to midnight. Most people were probably peacefully asleep in bed, but in the maternity ward, one young woman was anything but peacefully asleep. This woman was dangerously ill with preeclampsia, and the doctors had artificially induced labor to save both her and the unborn child. At this moment of 14 minutes to midnight, I was born to that woman, a tiny 5 pound premature baby girl that was, luckily, healthy… except for an inability to keep myself warm. As a result of that, the doctors placed me under a heat lamp to keep my body temperature up.
My mother had grown up in Lynchburg, a small town in the mountains of Virginia which was the infamous home of the late Jerry Fallwell and his godly creation, Liberty University [formerly Liberty Bible College]. My grandparents still live in this pious Southern community and when I visit them, I find slight irritation at the unsightly “L” and “U” engraved into a square mile of devastated woodland on the top of “Liberty Mountain.” It seems a little overboard for a bible college advertisement. But I digress. I was lucky… extremely lucky that my mother’s family was not composed of the fundamentalists which are so common in Lynchburg. Instead they proudly proclaim themselves part of the “reform” faith of the Presbyterian church. [Well, most of them… my Aunt Susan, who divorced my Uncle Tom a while ago was “born again.”]. Presbyterianism was the faith into which I was introduced, well before I can remember.
My parents were some of the only 55% American Christians who actually accepted evolution as the truth that it is. They claimed, as they still do, that it was God that guides evolution… and from the time I was a young child, I remember watching the honest and credible nature shows and shows on the cosmos and the formation of the Earth and the planets with my parents. I was, from the start, highly interested in these topics. I remember that as a preschooler and kindergartener I would stare at the sky for what seemed like hours to me… especially on long car trips. When my Dad joined a program called “Indian Princesses” with me at the local YMCA, I came out on the first night and gazed upward to be amazed that the stars seemed more brilliant than usual. I remember vividly remarking to my father “It seems like I could catch the sky.” That remark became my Indian Princesses name, “Catch the Sky.”
My family moved to Cincinnati, where I currently reside, when I was 3. By that time, my little [well, not little anymore] brother joined the family. Rob was nicknamed “goofball” by my family… probably because he was one. When he was a toddler and we had settled in a 100 year old, worn farm house on Clough Pike which had been split into two apartments, he was coming up with all kinds of hilarious names for everyday objects. For example his pacifier was “dop-dop” and fish was [let’s see if I can write this in type] “shhh-ka” [the ending was pronounced like the “a” in can… only with a weird twist]. This was also exactly what he called shoe. My dad thought this was hilarious.
It should be noted that my family was very devoted to their Christian faith. We went to church almost every Sunday [except perhaps Rob the toddler who was known, like most young children, to outbursts during the service]. I was too young to go to Sunday school, so I was sent to the nursery. Although, I mostly played by myself. I found the other children boring and annoying… they never went completely along with my ingenious play games. [No one knew it yet, but I had Aspergers, a form of high-functioning Autism].
My family was also big on education. Both of my parents had masters degrees and as soon as we moved to Cincinnati they enrolled me in our church’s preschool program. As in the Sunday nursery, I wasn’t very big on getting along with the other children… however I did have one friend, but I don’t remember what her name was.
Since the preschool was Presbyterian, we received daily Bible “story time” for each day that we were at “school.” When I was three school was 3 days a week, when I was four it was 4 days a week. Bible stories were read to us from a large “children’s bible” as we sat cross-legged in a circle around the “teacher.” I was, from the start, very interested in these incredible stories. Of course, they had been edited, watered down and some of the stories had been deleted. After all, some stories were inappropriate for children. They couldn’t have the children of the church learning that God had done evil things! They needed the children to trust their Sunday school teachers and religious lessons in preschool without question! For an example of a story part that they left out… I didn’t find out until I read the adult bible that in the story of the “Golden Calf” in Exodus, that Moses didn’t just get angry and smash the stone tablets on the ground… he ordered the people that didn’t choose to follow the Lord to be slaughtered by their family members… like animals. In my childhood and elementary school bibles… this was conveniently left out.
My parents gave me my first Bible when I was either in late preschool or in Kindergarten. It was a lovely red, hardback, cartoon picture book with all the good stories, and only benign parts of some of the bad ones or the bad parts were downplayed and explained as “God only did that to teach the people to obey him.” When I couldn’t read it… I looked at the pictures and my parents read it to me and explained what the stories “meant.” Soon however, my literacy skills were good enough to read it myself. I never read the whole thing… but I enjoyed many of the stories that I did read.
When I was in Kindergarten, just before my younger sister was born, I experienced death for the first time. My family had a dog that was a year older than me. He was a large miniature poodle named Casey. He was always a good dog, although he had epilepsy and towards the end, he started to go a little crazy. It is obvious to me now that, given his condition, he wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway. Well, I came home from school one day to find my mother and father looking very sad. I soon found out the reason. They told me Casey had “passed away” [they didn’t use “died,” in fact, years later when I asked about the difference between “passing away” and “dying” they said that “they didn’t believe that people died because dying meant that they didn’t live after death… they believed that people “passed away,” meaning to them that they went to heaven.] I didn’t know what “passed away” meant at 5 years old… but I was intelligent enough to know that I wasn’t going to see Casey again anytime soon. I asked my parents about what Heaven was… and they said that it was like “Casey had gone on a long vacation and you will see him again someday when you pass away.” I was a child. I believed them without a second thought. I took a very literal view of religion at that time. I thought that Heaven was in the clouds and that God and Jesus and the angels floated around on top of clouds. Although, I found myself wondering where they were when there were no clouds in the sky. Since Casey had gone to Heaven, my primitive mind automatically deduced that he was on a cloud. So, I turned to my father and said… “We have to get purple balloons.” My father looked at me with a strange look. I explained to him that “we had to send him messages to let him know not to worry about us.” My father is impressed to this day by how perceptive I was as a child… that is… he remains impressed by how well I understood that death meant that the dead loved one was not with us anymore. We wrote messages on paper, rolled them up and tied them to the strings of the purple balloons and let them go. I watched them fly up into the sky… higher and higher until they disappeared into the clouds. I was confident that Casey had gotten them.
When I was in the early part of grade school, God was just one of the very many ridiculous things I believed in. My memory of this time is quite vague, but I remember that I believed very strange things about Santa Claus. God and Santa were very similar in my mind. I was terrified of making either one of them “disappointed in me.” With God, I remember I once played pretend that my dolls were in heaven with the chair I put them on being the clouds of heaven (I still believed heaven was in the clouds) and then I decided to make one doll be God. I instantly wondered if this was a mistake. I felt terror that God would be upset with me and immediately abandoned my game and started sobbing while begging for forgiveness. I wondered if what I had done was the forbidden “Idoltry.” I couldn’t have been older than seven at the time. And when we went on long car trips, I was sometimes afraid that Santa had elves that were flying alongside the car, invisible, and spying on me to make sure that I wasn’t being a “bad girl.” You might say that I lived in my own world of fantasy. Are religious people, in a way, stuck in a similar world of fantasy? I can truthfully say, that there was a time when I believed in magic, monsters, spirits, elves, witches and other nefarious magical creatures. I believed that it was possible that I could open a door and fall into another world. I believed in things that one would expect only a child to believe in. However, as I have grown up into a woman, I have found (with disbelief and dismay) that some adults believe in some of these (or similar) magical creatures and events. I do not think one can grow up inside until one stops believing in nonsense like witches, fairies, flying horses, talking snakes, and an immortal little fiend of a man with red skin, a forked tail, and a three pronged pitchfork. To be perfectly honest… how is it any more ridiculous to believe in woodland fairies and unicorns, than it is to believe that a talking snake convinced a woman to eat a fruit with magical enlightening powers? A fruit which was in close proximity to another tree that grew fruit that gave immortality? Nay… these are the waking dreams that belong to children, and it is inappropriate for adults who have influence, power, and voice that children do not, to believe such things.
Only when you wake up from childhood dreams, are you ready to be a leader in the adult world.
When did I wake up? This is actually fairly difficult to say. The process of disillusionment and deconversion probably started years before the final blow destroyed the foundation of my faith. There was definitely a moment (more of a series of several months) in time that felt like a person awaking from a dream with that characteristic, uncomfortable jerk, and then feeling disoriented as their head cleared and reality starts to shine rays of brilliant sunlight through the fog of the fading dream. That moment was not to happen until my last two years of high school. There were many more years of Christian faith for me to pass through until I got there.